Ancient penguins about the size of a grown man may have waddled around the planet about 59 million years ago, new research suggests.
Fossils discovered in New Zealand indicate the seabird would have measured around 5ft 10ins (1.77m) long and weighed 223lbs (101kg) – making the penguin taller and heavier than British Olympic athlete Mohamed Farah, who stands 5ft 9in (1.75m) and weighs around 128lbs (58kg).
By contrast, the biggest penguin today, the emperor in Antarctica, is less than 4ft (1.2m) tall.
Dr Gerald Mayr, of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, said: “We examined the wing and leg bones of this penguin, and quickly realised that we were looking at a previously unknown species.
“Age datings reveal that the bird lived during the late Paleocene, ie, about 59 to 56 million years ago.
“The fossils are therefore among the oldest-known penguin remains, and it is remarkable that even these early forms reached such an enormous size.”
The team, comprised of researchers from Germany and New Zealand, named the creature Kumimanu biceae, which refers to Maori words for a large mythological monster and a bird.
The new discovery suggests some penguins may have become giants after losing the ability to fly following a mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago.
The researchers wrote in their paper: “Giant penguins developed shortly after the mass extinction near the end of the Cretaceous.
“It is possible that the disappearance of large marine reptiles enabled the penguins to explore new ecological niches.
“However, with the subsequent appearance of other large marine predators such as seals and toothed whales, the penguins faced new competition and predation – which may have led to their extinction.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.